Underachievement of Verbally Gifted Children

Why verbally gifted kids are at risk and what can be done

Boy reading in elementary school classroom
Hero Images/Hero Images/Getty Images

Verbally Gifted Children

The term verbally gifted is used to refer to children who have strong language skills. Verbally gifted kids become competent in language before their age mates do. They also perform better on verbal and general information tests and tests of English expression than mathematically gifted children do.

Verbal skills include the ability to understand language easily. That includes grammar as well as creative uses of language as in poetry.

Learning languages tends to come easily to the verbally gifted and they generally have a good ear for the sounds of a language. The verbally gifted also have the ability to understand and manipulate language symbols like alphabets.

What skills do children need to have in order to succeed in school? Most people would no doubt say verbal skills -- reading, writing, and speaking -- are among the most important skills needed for success. So it seems logical to believe that verbally gifted children be at an advantage since they tend to be good readers and are good with language. It may surprise you, but that may not be right. Verbally gifted children may actually be more at risk for underachievement than many other children.

Learning Style of Verbally Gifted Children

Richard Redding believes that one reason verbally gifted children are at risk is because of their learning style. These children tend to be holistic or global learners.

This means that they want to understand the "big picture" first and get the details later. They look for meaning and want to understand concepts and what those concepts imply. They aren't motivated to memorize detail, which is usually what is found on tests, and are likely to see rote memorization as meaningless.

For example, holistic learners aren't motivated to memorize the multiplication tables. They would prefer to learn multiplication facts in a meaningful context.

But schools expect children to memorize the details first. These are the facts that are seen as the essential building blocks of learning. After all, one needs to know multiplication facts before using them to work out problems. Holistic learners, though, need to understand why the facts are necessary before they will bother learning them. It may seem odd to use math as an example of the problems verbally gifted children have, but remember that this is about learning style rather than subject matter. It's easy to think that verbally gifted children resist memorizing the multiplication tables because they aren't interested in math or because they have less ability in math than in language, and while that can be true, their resistance can also be caused by their dislike for meaningless learning.

Intrinsic Motivation and Need for Mental Challenge

Many gifted children are intrinsically motivated. Smiley faces, star stickers, and even good grades aren't likely to motivate them. Redding believes that these children will sacrifice such "external" rewards in order to work on more appealing tasks.

The tasks that appeal to them are those they find interesting, challenging, and relevant to their lives. It's the challenge they find rewarding. Rote memorization of facts and concrete details is neither challenging nor rewarding.

If these children are not given sufficiently challenging work, they will make it more challenging. For example, they might give themselves time limits when no time limits exist. They will do this even though it means they may risk doing well on an assignment or on a test. Although they could get an A with little effort, they find the challenge more inherently rewarding.

They will also often choose more difficult tasks over easy ones in order to be challenged, even if it means they are risking the chance to get an easy grade.

Redding also found that verbally gifted children tend to be impulsive. Because they are impulsive, they don't pay attention to detail; they don't have the patience for it. As early as infancy, gifted children prefer novelty, which basically means that they need mental stimulation. This preference for novelty makes it very difficult for gifted children to continue working on tedious tasks -- and tasks that are too easy are, for them, tedious.

Emotional Temperament of Verbally Gifted Children

Redding also found verbally gifted underachievers tend to be high-strung and anxious. Most people might find it hard to understand why a child would resist completing easy work, but when the work is not challenging and a child is not motivated to do it, they can become anxious about it. In fact, they can become so anxious when trying to complete what they feel is tedious work that they will just avoid doing it altogether. Unfortunately, teachers may see that avoidance as a sign that the child doesn't understand the material or is too lazy or disorganized to do it.

It doesn't help that young children might not be able to correctly express the reason for their anxiety. For example, a young child might tell his parents or teacher that the work is just too hard. But the child and the adults aren't using the word "hard" in the same way. For the adults, "hard" means that the work is beyond the child's abilities or that the child hasn't yet mastered the concepts needed to do the work. What the child actually means, though, is that having to continue working on a too-easy task is causing them a great deal of anxiety.

Loss of Motivation and Underachievement

The lack of challenging work, combined with the learning style and temperament of verbally gifted children, can lead to a loss of motivation and the loss of motivation leads to underachievement. Verbally gifted children are holistic learners so when they are required to focus on concrete details instead of abstract concepts, they can lose their motivation to learn. It is often difficult for teachers to understand this about young gifted children because of what they have learned about child development, primarily Piaget's stages of development. Basically, Piaget did not consider children capable of true abstract thinking until they were around eleven or twelve years old.

Some gifted children, particularly those who are extrinsically motivated, are able to complete whatever work is required for excelling in school. However, the anxiety verbally gifted children feel when they are given one tedious task after another is often more than they can bear. The only way they know to cope with the anxiety is to not do the work at all. They will spend more time trying to get out of doing the work than they would spend if they just sat down and did it. But sitting down to do the work produces anxiety. Avoiding it and finding novel ways to avoid it not only helps them escape the anxiety but gives them a challenge!


Redding, R. (1989). Underachievement in the verbally gifted: Implications for pedagogy. Psychology in the Schools, 26(3), 275-291.

Benbow, C.P., & Minor, L.L. (1990). Cognitive profiles of verbally and mathematically precocious students: Implications for identification of the gifted. Gifted Child Quarterly, 34 (1), 21-26.